Return to the pulpit for Alberta pastor charged with breaking COVID-19 health measures
Sunday service compared James Coates' 35 days in jail to the imprisonment of St. Paul
For the first time in six weeks, an Alberta pastor charged with breaking provincial health restrictions addressed his flock in person on Sunday, during a service where his 35-day incarceration was compared to the years-long imprisonment of St. Paul.
James Coates addressed the congregation and delivered the opening and closing prayers at GraceLife Church, located west of Edmonton in Parkland County.
"I'm excited to hug you, embrace you and express my love and affection to you in a personal way," Coates told the assembled worshippers.
The parking lot was full of vehicles, though it is not known how many worshippers were in attendance.
Provincial regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 restrict in-person attendance at churches to 15 per cent capacity and call for congregants to physically distance and wear masks.
The church has been regularly defying those orders since December, with hundreds of people attending services despite a closure order issued by Alberta Health Services in January.
The Sunday sermon, delivered by associate pastor Jacob Spenst, reflected on the biblical story of St. Paul, an apostle who was imprisoned for several years. The letters written by him during that time were some of his final thoughts on Christianity before his death.
"Man can be chained, and we see that with Paul. The message of Christ, cannot. You can put a man in the remand centre; the gospel is not inhibited, not in the least. In fact, it progresses," Spenst said.
"We've seen a man go to jail now, he's been in chains, but he couldn't be more free, could he?"
Coates was released from jail on March 22. His 35 days were counted as credit to fully offset a $1,500 fine.
AHS said members of the public health team were on site Sunday but were not allowed inside. In a statement, AHS noted that it remains aware of the ongoing public health concerns and urges the church to comply with public health and court orders to follow measures to reduce the potential spread of COVID-19.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said on Wednesday that there hasn't yet been an outbreak of COVID-19 directly connected to GraceLife.
"While we have not yet seen transmission linked to that particular location, that is absolutely not an indication that it is not a risk. It just takes one infectious person for that spread to happen," she said.
"If those public health restrictions are not being followed, there is that risk of spread from one to many with potentially lethal consequences."
Coates is to go to trial in May on a count under Alberta's Public Health Act for holding services that allegedly broke a restriction on the size of gatherings.